Decisions are difficult. Strategically important decisions are particularly so. One of the best introductions to behavioural decision making (the very appropriately title “A Primer on Decision Making” by James March) has a subtitle of “How Decisions Happen.” That is not an accident.
It would be easy to presume that the subtitle should be “How decisions are made.” Or “How to make better decisions.” Or perhaps even “Guiding better decisions.” But no, those would be far too active and intentional implication. Instead, we’ve got “how decisions happen.”
There are a number of implications buried in those three words. It’s a simple statement, with a lot to unpack. For starters, “how decisions happen” feels awfully passive. It borders on the accidental. There is no intention or motive force behind decisions. They happen. They show up. Turn around, and there you find it: a decision.
The reality is that there is a tremendous amount of truth behind a statement that decisions happen. I can point you to dozens of books and hundreds of papers that fundamentally question whether decisions are something that actually get made at all. That isn’t a point of philosophy, but one of very practical fact. Looking at most strategic decisions, it is very difficult to point to when they were made, how they were made and by whom. Ask any of the people involved, and there is every likelihood that you will get a slightly different—or significantly different—narrative of how the thing came to be.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s scale this down to a decision that is far simpler than the strategic decisions we’ve been working through thus far. Let’s talk about something easy, something most of us do semi-regularly (or at least used to). Let’s explore the theoretically easy choice of what to order for dinner.
There are circumstances where this is easy (or at least easier). You’re in your favourite restaurant, and so you the choice tends towards your favourite meal. But do you do that today? Is this the day that you change it up, and surprise your partner? Do you daringly step out and try something new? Or do you cave at the last minute and go for what you love?
Of course, in an unfamiliar restaurant, you may wrestle more with the choice. There are two, or three, or even four things that grab your fancy. They all sound good. You don’t know what you feel like. You’re struggling with how to decide. The pasta sounds tempting, but steak is always good. Of course, the spices in the vegetarian dish are right up your alley. Or you might do a sandwich. How do you choose? You lean one way. You think you’ve decided. But then you’re torn. You resolve to make a choice when the server comes to the table. Then, as the server approaches, you ask for a couple of more minutes. You contemplate more. You switch out what you thought you were going to have for the other. You finally make your order.
So, in all of that, when did the decision happen? When you first made a choice? When you waffled, but then resolved what you were going to eat? When you chose to defer until your order was taken? When you finally told the server what you want? Even then, the choice is revocable. You could call the server back over and say you’ve changed your mind (again). You could even send the meal back when it arrives at your table. Most of us tend to go along with the choice once articulated to the server, and there is an increasing risk of being viewed as “one of those” customers the more you drag this on. But leave enough of a tip, and even those behaviours will be forgiven.
Practically speaking, the best definition of a decision is often something along the lines of “something that there is a consensus feeling of inevitability about happening that no one is going to obstruct.” Let’s be very clear, here: that sounds a lot more passive and accidental, and far less deliberate and intentional, than most normal perceptions of decision making actually suggest. However, it is often much closer to reality than decision as “a deliberate choice decisively made by a group of people acting with proactive intention.”
It is rare that decisions are actually crafted. It is far more likely that they evolve, and that they are allowed to proceed. If we think about a significant strategic decision, it might begin with an initial proposal, discussed informally at an executive meaning. Enough positive indication—or at least an absence of emphatic opposition—might see that turned into a presentation. This may evolve into a feasibility study, or a business case. Projects related to the proposal may appear in annual budgets, or they may simply start to exist and be worked on. This continues, because no one has decisively said “no”, which is not to say that anyone has consciously and explicitly said “yes”.
Instead, decisions often progress through stages from “possible” to “likely” to “inevitable” to “accepted.” This makes “decide” appear often as a less active and intentional act, and far more one of allowing and not resisting. For anyone that has spent any time in meetings—from the executive floor on down—this will have been readily observed many times. Not always, but often enough to be recognizable.
Part of the problem here is that we rarely as groups actually negotiate how decisions will be made. This is true both generally and in the specific context of any given decision. While there are many decision making models—from autocratic decree to majority vote to some form of consensus—they are rarely acknowledged, discussed or negotiated. What emerges then, can and will vary considerably. At times, the senior executive articulates an imperative. In other instances, a sufficiently influential subset of the meeting expresses intention. And often you get something that functions a little like consensus, but with none of its explicit defining features.
A simple framework for decision making I saw posted in a corporate boardroom once offers a useful perspective. It shows a simple continuum, with five points that describe how a decision might be made: I decide, I decide with your input, we decide, you decide with my input, or you decide. Even explicitly acknowledging where a particular decision falls would make a significant difference in decision clarity.
Where that framework still falls down, though, is in the middle: “we decide.” There are many ways that we might decide, but none of them are precisely articulated. We might vote, or we might employ a model of consensus. Even within those choices, there are specifics to work out. What constitutes a majority vote? When has sufficient consensus been realized to move forward? What level of opposition is enough to stop a decision?
It’s interesting to explore why we don’t have these conversations. Often, the expectation of “this is how things have always happened here” also lends itself to decision making. A practical convention has frequently emerged over time that is broadly accepted (or at least not opposed), much like the decisions that the convention produces. That works fine, up until it doesn’t. When the stakes are high, or the opposition or concern is significant enough, we can often find ourselves struggling with how to appropriately engage in revisiting and addressing how the decision should be approached.
Politics is a significant force, also. That can manifest in a number of different ways. We may not want to stand out, or appear overly disagreeable or critical. There can often be an implicit avoidance of conflict, whether constructive or otherwise. There may be jockeying for position and influence with those with power. And there may be a degree of horse-trading, of supporting proposals of others now with an intention of securing subsequent support from them for our ideas in the future.
These forces all play out. They are rarely acknowledged, let alone talked about, but they are recognized as being factors in play. That’s great for those at the table with power and influence; they often have an appetite for the status quo, because their proposals are usually the ones most readily accepted. But that doesn’t mean those proposals are good, appropriate or of most strategic importance for the organization.
What is fascinating is that once again, online meeting tools provide the opportunity to address and meaningfully influence many of these challenges. While the tendency with online—as well as in person—meetings can be a rush for the finish line, it does not need to be. There is an opportunity to create and insert important discussions about not just decisions, but also the process of how those decisions will be arrived at. And there are approaches that can make it more comfortable for people to participate in those processes.
The first opportunity is building in discussion about how a decision will be arrived at by the group. This may be a question of on-going group operation, or it may be particular to a decision—or a group or class of decisions—that is to be addressed. Determining whether some form of voting or a level of consensus is required can improve decision making abundantly, just as a by-product of the discussion. Having that work well still takes practice. In particular, forms of consensus can feel awkward and difficult first, effective though they can be in the long run.
A second opportunity is in testing whether or not the group is at a point where it is comfortable making a decision. This can be an incredibly powerful tool, but it’s one that isn’t used very often. Doing so creates two opportunities: it signals that a decision is about to be made, which can be useful in itself; it also opens up a space where it is safe to raise concerns or highlight unresolved issues, without necessarily being perceived as disrupting the decision.
Checking in on decision readiness isn’t just about asking “are we ready?” although that might be how it appears in its most simplistic form. Instead, it can take the form of a series of questions and considerations on the decision making process to date:
- Are we comfortable that we have identified all appropriate options?
- Have we sufficiently considered to the merits and drawbacks of each option?
- Have we sufficiently considered the impacts of this decision on all key stakeholders?
- Have we appropriately considered the risks associated with this decision?
- Have we appropriately considered all of the potential consequences of making this decision?
These questions allow the group to not only test whether or not they are ready to make a decision, but also to summarize and confirm the thinking that has occurred to date. What is particularly useful about using online meeting approaches is that the questions above can first be explored using individual polls or voting tools, allowing each participant to explicitly weigh in on how they respond. This is materially different than asking the same question in person, where it can be easy to hide behind subtle nods or silence being deemed to be consent. It forces acknowledgement of an answer, and it does so quickly.
It is also possible to use voting tools in online meetings to test for decisions. Simplistically, this can be a straight up yes-or-no vote (based on whatever model of decision making has been chosen). It can also be used, though, to tease out more subtle distinctions in terms of support. The options might include everything from “strongly support” to “moderately support” to “neutral” to “uncomfortable, but unwilling to oppose” to “oppose.” The astute observer will recognize these options as how consensus decision models might be operationalized in a poll. They are also a powerful tool for highlighting where more exploration and discussion is required before a decision can actually be considered to happen.
The items explored to date continue to suggest ways that complex, strategic decisions can occur online. They also highlight how doing so can in fact allow for superior levels of interaction and discussion than might occur in person. Perhaps most importantly, they identify the questions and conversations that we should be having more directly about how decisions are arrived at, no matter what type of meeting we find ourselves in.